No, 1/6 was not at all comparable to 9/11
but the response is eerily similar
WASHINGTON (AP) — Side by side at ground zero on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Republican governor read from the Gettysburg Address and a Democratic governor read from the Declaration of Independence as Americans everywhere mourned and remembered as one people.
On Thursday, in contrast, the anniversary of the assault on the U.S. Capitol exposed a nation of two peoples.
Democrats, led by one angry president standing in the gleaming hall of statues overrun a year ago by the pro-Trump mob, remembered. Republicans in large measure moved on.
How a nation mourns and remembers has long been fundamental to America’s glossy ideal of shared values, common purpose and familiar sense of history. The division on this day showed a country far removed from that.
No doubt like me you’ve been inundated with grave words, solemn reflections and brave denunciations of the white supremacy on display one year ago, January 6th 2021. Our nation’s leaders, all the way up to President Biden and Vice President Harris, have made the case that the angry mob storming the Capitol last year were comparable - if not more dangerous - than the 9/11 hijackers twenty years before.
This morning, January 7, 2022, I woke up and checked the AP headlines for the day. The quote at the beginning of my post is the lede for first article of the most universally respected news wire in our nation. The point is clear. January 6th 2021, the day the angry mobs stormed the sacred halls of US power, was a modern-day 9/11 event that should have brought all of us together.
A couple points before I get into it.
First, it should be obvious that an angry (and, yes, armed) mob that essentially walked into the Capitol building completely unopposed by police (as long as, for whatever reason, you don’t count Ashli Babbitt’s point-blank killing at the hands of Capitol police) is not exactly an indicator of healthy democracy. That many congresspeople on either side of the political aisle feared for their lives and went into hiding was certainly troubling on every level.
Second, it seems clear beyond any debate that President Trump’s words - echoed by many, including white evangelical leaders - were meant to stir up the very worst of impulses among his people. “The Big Lie,” that the election was stolen from Trump is, and always was, disgusting, pathetic and an open assault against what remains of our democracy.
And, third, nearly 3,000 people died on the morning of 9/11. Seven people died as a result of the January 6th riots at the Capitol. Of these seven, three died of natural causes (clearly the mayhem of the moment contributed to the various strokes and heart attacks). One officer, Brian Sicknick, died in the same way. And, tragically, two officers completed suicide in the days following.
Particularly as a Christian, and more generally as a human being, one death in connection to this, or any riot, regardless of its relative justification, is reason for pause, for mourning and, yes, for grave concern.
But we have to be honest if we’re to say anything about the January 6th mayhem. Or at least we should be honest. Three thousand souls killed in an instant while at work in their offices is in no way comparable to seven people dying in a political riot.
Here’s where I contradict myself, though. The similarities between the aftermath of 9/11 and 1/6 are absolutely comparable. Indeed, the parallels, notwithstanding the AP’s point about two clean, partisan narratives emerging in the year that has followed, are undeniable. Long story short, the main beneficiary to a year of hand-wringing has been the security and surveillance state.
To start with, another AP story from January 4, 2022, titled “Insurrection prompts year of change for US Capitol Police,” casually mentions:
…the agency that was once little-known outside of Washington now has an elevated profile, leading to a roughly 15% increase in funding and a greater awareness of its role in the patchwork of groups that protect the region…
For those of us who spent the entirety of 2020 decrying bloated and ever-expanding police budgets, this fact should be enough to at least make us pause. In Birmingham, where I live, Mayor Randall Woodfin increased the police budget by 11 million dollars, taking that money from budgeted social services and community causes. My chapter of Birmingham DSA, for example condemned this increase.
That 15% increase? Eighty-eight million dollars extra to the Capitol Police.
But of course, that $88m is just one aspect of the fallout. In keeping with the 9/11 comparisons, as I mentioned above, nobody is more happy about 1/6 than the surveillance state.
That is, perhaps except for cheerleaders like Vox Media who recently published a smug subheading that read, “Everyone thought it was cool to take selfies doing crimes until the FBI got all their data from Google and said hello.” The article would go on to chronicle fellow citizens taking on the task of spying on their neighbors, quipping “At the same time, loosely organized groups of online amateur sleuths, like the “Sedition Hunters,” have amassed their own pool of suspects.”
Far more troubling is the reality that unelected bureaucrats with actual power are the professional arm of the spies. In a paragraph that reminds the reader of Edward Snowden’s revelations of domestic spying in the years after 9/11, Harsha Panduranga with the Brennan Center for Justice said in an interview:
Many federal agencies monitor social media, including DHS, the FBI, the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the US Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the US Marshals Service and the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Whatever bad guys may be caught in the dragnet, is this really the type of reality we’d like to live in as a society? Are we ok with government agencies spying on us via our shared conversations on social media? If we are, I’d argue, at least, that this is not a left-wing value.
The argument for the doubling down on government surveillance, of course, is a resurrection of the argument for domestic surveillance of Muslims (or those who appeared Muslim) in Giuliani’s and Bloomberg’s New York City. The problem is that the methods and relative successes of this type of spying is also a resurrection of the 9/11 past. Panduranga put it this way:
The main new DHS effort we’re aware of is an initiative monitoring social media to try to identify “narratives” giving rise to violence. DHS says they’ll use social media to pinpoint tips, leads and trends. In September, for example, DHS warned there could be another attack on the Capitol in connection with a Justice for J6 rally. But reports showed that law enforcement personnel [and journalists] outnumbered the protesters, and there was no indication of violence at the protest. This shows how difficult it is to predict violence relying on social media chatter. (emphasis mine)
For anyone that has started a Meetup group this seems rather obvious. Much of what people say they will do online essentially amounts to nothing in reality. Violence, when it is done with a digital footprint of some kind, seems to be obvious in hindsight but the prediction business is not as easy as we might think.
Another 9/11 parallel is the negative impact on people of color. Not from the violent nature of a thousand or so rioters armed with everything from baseball bats and bear mace to guns and explosives, but as a result of the type of surveillance lauded by many in my own political camp.
The thinking goes that, as long as it is our political enemies - and not us - who are being silenced, we can cheer the results of government spying. Again, though, Panduranga’s words come as a warning:
Authorities have characterized ordinary activity, like wearing a particular sneaker brand or making common hand signs, or social media connections, as evidence of criminal or threatening behavior. This kind of assumption can have high-stakes consequences…Black, brown, and Muslim people, as well as activists and dissenters more generally, are especially vulnerable to being falsely labeled as threats based on social media activity. (emphasis mine)
In other words, it is those who don’t have the hardest time being heard in public that are the most harmed by these policies. When Donald Trump was banned from social media following the events of January 6th, his outlets for being heard weren’t curtailed at all. This is not the case for someone, say, a Palestinian activist.
Perspective and proportionality are not things we do well as a society, at least currently. Two things can be true. It can be true that a thousand or so people, at the goading of the sitting president, took weapons and tried to overthrow the government. As at least an indirect result, seven people are dead. It can also be true that we didn’t need something like this to let us know that our nation is in dire straits.
For all the hand-wringing we’ve seen, none of the events of 1/6 speak as loudly to a democracy in peril as half a million people sleeping on the streets. Or the tens of millions who are uninsured. Or the fact that those of us with insurance have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for an ambulance ride.
As usual the list can go on and on. All to say, for evidence that democracy itself is in peril, a few thousand rioters at the Capital is not the first sign to those of us who don’t live fully online that the emperor has no clothes.
If this is the case, and we can have at least some perspective on the scenario, we would do well to pay close attention to the fallout not only of far-right extremists (and viking-helmet clad loonies) but much more to a political system that is content to enact the same moral catastrophes we’ve been up to internationally for the past twenty years here at home.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, consider that Dick Cheney was cheered in congress last week for lending his support for rooting out “domestic terrorists.”
What does this mean particularly for Christians? As I recall, we’re supposed to be the ones not only concerned for the least of these but also to be “as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” It is true that Jesus, using hyperbole, councils us to cut off the hand that is sinning. But does this mean we should join the chorus in engaging in hyperbolic rhetoric, as long as it appears to serve our political goals?
As seekers of truth and wisdom, we would to well to offer sobriety to a culture that is drunk on fear and hate. Part of that wisdom is a recognition that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Maybe we on the Christian left can offer peace and understanding as we work on behalf of the poor, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.
So, yes, those who took up arms in public to threaten the lives of members of Congress, of Capital Police - and those whose public rhetoric fueled the riots of 1/6 - should be brought to justice. The same was true of those who actually carried out the (in no way comparable) attacks of 9/11. But the lesson in our response to 9/11 ought to be clear.
“Pursuing our enemies to the ends of the earth” only results in endless war. That may work for politicians, for the police state, for the intelligence apparatus and for news outlets that keep us glued to their latest updates.
But it doesn’t work for the poor. It doesn’t work for the vulnerable. It doesn’t work for the widow, the orphan or the stranger in our midst.